Milly Thomas: ‘I want to write characters who don’t have all womankind on their shoulders’

Milly Thomas. Picture: Jack Sain

Milly Thomas. Picture: Jack Sain - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to Gospel Oak actor and playwright Milly Thomas about creating parts for women that don’t divide them into ‘shrews and whores’

Milly Thomas started writing in her last year of drama school and hasn’t stopped since.

Inspired by the success of writers like Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge, she’s among a band of actors creating uncompromising work that reflects their lives, and challenges notions of femininity.

“Roles for women fall into two categories; shrews and whores,” says the Gospel Oak playwright.

“Men are allowed to explore a murky middle ground because they have a firmer grip on what masculinity is, but it feels we aren’t allowed the full scope of our gender. At drama school it’s easy to feel you have no control and I started writing to give myself parts, but realised I had something to say that felt more important. I feel I have rocked up late to a huge gender equality party that’s been happening around me.”

Thomas’ play Clickbait dealt with a woman blackmailed over a holiday sex tape, who wrests back control by sharing it herself. Her debut A First World Problem was set among high-achieving privileged teens beset by self-harming and bullying.

But her latest projects are both heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe this August.

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Brutal Cessation (Assembly George Square) explores violence in relationships, and Dust (Underbelly Cowgate) is a “very personal” monologue about depression and suicide performed by Thomas.

“Dust is a story I want to tell by myself,” she says, of the caustic comedy which sees Alice stuck as a fly on the wall and forced to watch the ripple effect of her suicide on family and friends.

“I was interested in how we eulogise people after death. We’re very squeamish about death and don’t deal with it as well as other countries. You’re not allowed to say anything bad about anyone who has died. Even if they were an arsehole they become sanctified.”

Thomas is less concerned about apportioning blame and more interested in exploring what lead to suicide: “It’s more about the reality of living with depression,” says Thomas who has personal experience of it.

“We are brilliant at talking about talking about mental health – at saying there’s a stigma - but not shifting that stigma. I wanted to pop that bubble. It’s ok to say you were depressed but not that you are depressed. That means having to tell everyone you are fine all the time and being a liar when the truth is I can barely get out of bed, beacause you don’t want to freak anyone out.”

Brutal Cessation examines the gender balance in relationships and “what happens when we know we should leave a relationship but don’t.”

Keen to disple the idea that victimhood is gendered, Thomas wrote two genderless characters with a male and female performer switching roles throughout. “We’ve got to interrogate the sexism we all carry, keep challenging it every day. It’s interesting how hearing words spoken in male and female mouths and seeing things flipped round challenges assumptions. For instance I don’t know why we’re not more afraid of women’s violence.”

Following a rotten loveless relationship, there’s both dark humour and violence, but Thomas was keen to look at abuse “that’s not necessarily Domestic Violence”.

“It takes many forms and can stem from a warped self-righteous sense of dispensing justice. We all know people who have been together for too long. That fear of being alone is often greater than the fear of the other person.”

Thomas who has also written episodes of BBC3’s Clique, adds: “It’s brilliant that shows like Fleabag have opened a door. People realise we can do these things. In a world where you can still audition to play a dead prostitute in a bin, actors deserve better the public deserve better.

“Thanks to Edinburgh and the London Fringe, we are showing people what we’ve got and writing characters who don’t have to carry all of womankind on their shoulders.”

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